Overcoming the Acute Stress Response

hypothalamusThe outcome of just about any stressful situation is going to depend on your mindset and preparedness. For example, if you’re driving down the highway at 70mph and a deer jumps out in front of you, things can go one of two ways. If you were never told what to do in that situation, and have never gone through what you would do if it happened, the probability that you will react correctly is very low. On the other hand, if someone explained what to do, and you have mentally rehearsed your reaction, it is more likely that you will avoid a collision or at least minimize the damage. This is because when we are under stress our brain is hardwired to focus on certain activities and eliminate others, resulting in the “fight, flight, posture, or freeze” response. So how do you know how you will react? How can you control your response to be what you want it to be?

No matter how much you train and mentally prepare yourself for a self-defense situation, there is no way to control or avoid it producing an acute stress response, often known as “fight or flight”. Although we cannot control or stop it from occurring, I believe that by understanding this response, one can anticipate, and therefore be minimally affected by it.

When a person encounters a stressful situation, the hypothalamus will signal the sympathetic nervous system into action. This part of the nervous system in turn sends out signals to different glands which then release adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream, causing multiple changes in the body. Meanwhile, the hypothalamus is also releasing other substances that will activate approximately 30 different hormones to help the body deal with the threat it is facing. The result of all of this includes:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils: take in as much light as possible
  • Veins in the skin constrict to channel blood to major muscle groups
  • Blood sugar level increases
  • Muscles tense up (resulting in goose bumps)
  • Smooth muscle relaxes so lungs can receive more oxygen
  • Non-essential systems like the digestive and immune systems shut down to preserve energy
  • Tunnel vision: the brain focuses only on the big picture to determine the threat

While you cannot completely change the way your brain is wired, there are a few things you can do. The most important factor in determining your reaction is your mindset, which is more than just information. As someone once wrote, mindset “is information propelled by an attitude”, and a “self-defense mindset is a conscious effort to program responsible and effective information into your mind and then allow that information to be ‘set in stone’ by your emotions”.

So, one of the aspects of mindset is the information. If you have never taken the time to decide what you are willing to do in a self defense situation, or how far you are willing to go, then it is very likely that if put in that situation, you will hesitate long enough to put your life at risk and make a decision that you would not otherwise have made. It is important to remember that in most self-defense situations, you will have no more than 3 seconds to make and act on a decision, so one of the things you can, and should do, is think about situations you might find yourself in, and determine what you are willing to do in those particular situations.

If you are walking down the street when someone approaches you and demands your wallet, what are you going to do? If someone breaks into your home, are you going to be able to get to your gun? Do you have a plan in place for your family to follow, in order to keep them safe?

You may think it’s paranoid to mentally go through situations like this, but it is no different than being prepared for anything else. If you live in a part of the country that sees a lot ofuntitled hurricanes, you should probably have flashlights, some canned foods, a water supply, etc. If you live in tornado alley, you have probably been submitted to countless tornado drills since you were in elementary school, and know what to look for when you need to take cover. The reasoning for fire, tornado, and earthquake drills is exactly the same; if you train your brain to react to a situation in a certain way, then when that situation actually arises, it will take a lot less brain power to put that into practice.

Another critical aspect of your mindset is the attitude; determining whether you perceive yourself as a victim or a force to be reckoned with. Steve Pearl is quoted as saying, “If you self defensethink you are a victim, you are right!”. If you believe that you are incapable of defending yourself, then your attitude will become a fact. If you train yourself to be alert and believe that you can successfully defend yourself, then that will likely become the outcome.

Somewhat related to mindset, is determining whether you are willing to take someone else’s life. If you carry a gun, but have never stopped to think about this, you are setting yourself up for failure. Why? Suppose I am in a situation where I have only perceived two options: use deadly force to defend myself or submit and likely lose my life. That is probably not the best time to figure out that I am not willing to take another human life, because instead of looking for a third alternative, in which I can attempt to escape, I am standing in front of my assailant having a mental debate about whether to draw my gun or not.

There is an excellent book my husband made me read before buying me my first concealed carry gun. The book, written by Dave Grossman, is called “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”. It is by no means a light read, but is a very insightful tool that will make you reflect on the psychological aspects of taking a human life, whether you are legally justified or not. I absolutely recommend everyone who is considering carrying a gun read this book, and really reflect on the topic because if you aren’t willing to pull the trigger, a gun becomes nothing more than a heavy accessory. And as a matter of fact, if you aren’t willing to pull the trigger in that situation, then your gun should not even exist in your mind.back carry

The final aspect of preparation is the technical and logistical part. Have you ever stopped to think about how you will draw your gun in a situation? If you carry in an ankle holster, are you going to be able to get to your gun while someone is chasing you?  If you carry in the small of your back, will you be able to draw while sitting in your car? If you carry in your purse, what will you do if someone snatches your purse? Will you remember to take the safety off under stress? All of these things will affect the outcome and have to be taken into consideration. I recommend that dry fire concealedanyone and everyone who carries for self-defense dry-fire. For those who have never heard the term, dry-fire is practicing drawing your gun, aligning your sights, pulling the trigger, etc. with an unloaded gun. This doesn’t simply mean standing in front of a target in your living room and squeezing the trigger with all the time in the world. Practice drawing your UNLOADED gun (if it’s loaded, it’s NOT dry-fire) from concealment. If your gun has a safety, practice drawing your gun and taking the safety off as part of your draw. Think of situations that might make it difficult to access your handgun, figure out a solution while you don’t have a gun to your head, and practice it. Dry-fire will also help you determine your skill and comfort level, which can in turn determine whether you save a life or perhaps accidentally take a bystander’s life.

This may seem like a lot of information to process, or you may think that I am absurd for thinking that everyone who carries a gun should go through all this work. However, I can tell you from personal experience that if I had taken the time to sit down and think about all of this, and come up with a plan, the home invasion I was in may have turned out very differently.